I recently remarked that comprise/compose is the Masonic handshake of editors.

For those of you who are not among the initiate, let me explain.

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The distinction, succinctly explained in Garner’s Modern English Usage: “The parts compose the whole; the whole comprises the parts. The whole is composed of the parts; the parts are comprised in the whole. Comprise, the more troublesome word in this pair, means “to contain, to consist of.”

Comprise, then, is the box that contains the parts, and by this standard, it is always incorrect in all times and in all places, ever to write “is comprised of.”

But Bryan Garner observes that what editors think of as correct use is “simple, but increasingly rare,” and he rates is comprised of as “Ubiquitous, but …” or thisclose to being accepted usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage concurs, observing that is comprised of dates from the later nineteenth century and remarking on the supposed distinction between the active and passive forms of the verb, “It is a little hard to understand why these constructions that are so obviously established are still the source of so much discontent.”

The Corpus of Contemporary American English displays quite a number of citations, many from edited publications, for comprised of. I think that there would be a great many more if copy editors had not been keeping the comprise/compose distinction on life support.

I say that because I have been dutifully recasting is comprised of constructions for forty years, along with my copy desk colleagues. But now that copy desks at newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses have been neutered, I predict that the number of instances will swell.

It still looks odd to me, and my hands itch to change it to “is composed of.” But though I expect to maintain lie/lay and who/whom until I hang up the green eyeshade, perhaps it is time to let this one go.

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